Leaders need focus

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Written by James Flanagan on 1 June 2014 in Features

James Flanagan urges all leaders to focus on self-awareness to ride the wave of enduring success

Leadership is not just all about you; it’s all about our friend ‘focus’. Focus on you and your awareness of your feelings, thoughts and beliefs. Focus on others to read and understand them, which is the key to managing relationships. Focus on the outside world to understand it and to decide on the best way forward. Focus allows leadership to lead others to lead.

Great leadership requires an understanding of oneself.

Before one can effectively comprehend, appreciate and leverage the unique skill sets and competencies of others, one must know self. An unexamined life is not only not worth living, it is  unbearable, both for self and others. Unfortunately, many people throughout their lives, probably beginning with their parents, don’t have enough leaders who can best identify and enable their full potential. This leads to many people feeling stuck and slipping into a rut both within their lives and their careers. They find themselves feeling trapped surrounded by people who only care about themselves – or who have never taken the time to get to know them well enough to guide their career growth and potential.

Leaders see the positive in others and encourage them to develop it. They believe serving others serves the advancement of everyone. Unloaded or free of personal baggage they can do this. They have taken the time to stop and reflect. They know who they are, what they really believe in and their strengths and weaknesses. When under pressure they know how they react and manage themselves accordingly.

They see the world as bountiful and are constantly in search of opportunities previously unseen. They are motivated to make new discoveries or solve problems where others have failed. They only rest when they have achieved success. Fully rested, they then go on to achieve more. If they fail, they have the strength to try a new approach. Strength gives them patience. This is the fruit of the time they have taken to invest in themselves. Patience builds character and character builds hope. Hope promotes the desire of positive outcomes related to events and circumstances in one’s life or in the world at large. It is the belief that what is wanted can be had or that something desired may happen.

Facing a challenge, they become alive. Extremely resourceful and creative, they look for the solution from within. If extra resources are required they rely on their well developed network. Challenges will be opportunities to push boundaries, to grow; the current situation is not good enough.

Their ability to listen enables them to be excellent networkers creating support systems of like-minded people who share ideas. Authentic leaders are consistent, embrace diversity and encourage their people to share their ideas and ideals.  They know how to convert limited ingredients into a banquet, creating masterpieces out of a boiled egg. The good chef can open a fridge or larder, look to see what they have, and begin to work.  

They go about their day leading in ways that come most naturally to them. They have their own unique style and approach that supports innovation and initiative. This approach makes the workplace culture stronger, more unified and collaborative. Their presence and charisma is bountiful and is spent helping others reach their potential. They are constantly looking for ways to challenge the status quo; they identify and help correct those who might bring the organisation down and are quick to solve problems.

Leaders’ determination to demonstrate their intentions by their actions leaves them no appetite to engage in politics or power games.

Their confidence allows them to become experts at identifying the unique skill sets that lie within every person – because they place an emphasis on individuality, one’s unique strengths, and they allow employees to have a voice that matters and is heard.  They allow their employees to discover their own identity and assign them roles and responsibilities where their contributions will enable them to flourish.

Leaders’ enjoyment of sharing their wisdom and secrets of success makes them great teachers. Their war stories are the foundation of their leadership lessons giving what they say appeal, weight and impact.

This self-knowledge or self-awareness enables a leader to trust themselves. As a result, they offer support in ways that others don’t when times get tough.  They give people a platform to demonstrate who they are, develop their skills and offer them to the world.

These leaders trust themselves enough to appreciate the differences in others. Unshackled by fear, they are eager to learn and make new discoveries. Mistakes, errors, and what others perceive as failure are some of their best friends. These leaders know failure is not fatal and see it as an opportunity to learn, to overcome adversity and avoid the same occurrence.

When a person is self-absorbed, they are imprisoned and do not see the efforts of others. Top, rising or unharnessed talent is lost and the efforts of others begin to wane. Freed of self-absorption, leaders are able to focus on the efforts of others. When leaders value and respect their employees, retention will remain strong and people will work harder, with a greater sense of purpose, and with a passionate pursuit of excellence.

Leadership is about awakening and developing others and their talents. Leaders who forget this will be forgotten quickly. Managers manage. Leaders leave legacies. Making a mark means someone may have done something great. Leaving a legacy means leaving something that continues to grow; those left behind respect the legacy enough to sustain it.

They will always leave an unforgettable impression and have long-lasting influence on you, your career, and the organisation they serve.

People generally, and employees in particular, gravitate towards leaders that have an identity they can count on, they know what to expect from them and the performance that is expected of them.

Managing managers can’t lead and make it difficult for others to follow them because they lack the originality, consistency and presence to excite their teams. Managers without leadership self-awareness and self-trust lack the required emotional intelligence that allows them to connect with their employees in meaningful and purposeful ways. 

The marketplace is changing fast. But the required response, leadership that generates employee agility, is a constant.  Leaders in successful companies coach employees through the “I can’t” to track and recognise their full potential. This allows an environment of continuous learning, encouraging employees to embrace an entrepreneurial attitude and actively seek out new challenges.

Leaders don’t have to do anything. They do it because they want to. They enjoy it. Aware of their own potential, they want others to achieve theirs. They realise it is not a competition. While they can enjoy being on their own, they relish the opportunity to integrate with their teams and staff members; always using the opportunity to improve their ability to mentor, inspire and motivate, thus developing others. Leadership success comes most to those who are surrounded by like-minded people, people who want success to continue, people they have ignited. They don’t want people to plateau or relax on a growth curve but realise that, although they are enjoying success, that success will end if they don’t seek out new opportunities.

The Sigmoid Curve

The Sigmoid Curve1 is an example of how leaders, and those they lead, thrive. We live in a dynamic but cosmic world where everything occurs in the cycle of inception, growth and decline. Some believe or think of things happening in a linear way but an awareness of our world teaches us otherwise. Day and night, the seasons and the cycles of the plants and animals they support all rise and wither. This cycle affects every facet of our lives. Relationships, family life and careers follow cycles as do the lives of the institutions, companies and organisations to which we belong. Even countries and empires rise and fall in cycles.

Learning Phase

First, at the bottom of the S there is a section which often dips before starting to rise.  This corresponds to an initial period of learning or growing. After a baby is born, for example and much to the parents’ fear it looses weight. Or when starting a new job, the initial excitement is followed by questioning. How am I going to look good at work today? What will happen if I make a mistake? Or when someone starts a business there is a period of hard work, where little seems to get accomplished. This could happen for several years, those involved work to make contacts, learn the right skills, and develop a roadmap for success.

This phase can be frustrating. So much effort is being expended with so little apparent result. You could compare it to sowing a crop and tending to the fields – for a long time, there is no sign of growth. But under the surface, something is happening. The seeds are developing, moving and growing. But the wise don’t rush out to dig up the ground to see what is happening. They are aware.

Many businesses, careers and other ventures fail or experience a set back in this first phase because it is so hard to keep going with no tangible reward.  We tend to be impatient and, if we don’t get some immediate reward for our efforts, we can move on to something else. But the only way to success is to push through this initial phase, to keep going and know this persistence will eventually and inevitably move things on. Where others will flounder, the leader will persevere. There is no such thing as failure; it is all an opportunity to learn – continual learning through daily reflection.

Growth Phase

The second section is a sharply rising line in the elongated S shape. During this phase, business and careers move ahead quickly. Revenues increase, relationships mature, promotions occur easily, and organisations become much larger. This is where the crop which was sown is growing and coming to maturity, and every day brings perceptible growth and maturation. It is during the end of this phase the leader makes the wise but difficult decision not to continue to coast but to begin afresh and to start on a new venture.

Decline Phase

The final phase of the curve is a decline, as the S shape starts to fall. The harvest has grown to maturity, and unless harvested, begins to die and rot. In the corporate world morale and energy dip, the good people leave, revenues decline, the empire starts to crumble. The company has lost the opportunity to use the high energy levels to transfer onto a new venture. The wise will recognise these changes and begin to refresh what they are doing.

Surfing and surviving the curve

Leaders or successful individuals and learning organisations are self-reflective and constantly monitoring their own position. Truly successful individuals, those who are energised by self-awareness, are innovative enough to change what they are doing when what they are doing is nearing its peak and start on the bottom of another curve. For those burdened with personal baggage this can be very hard to do. Why change just as the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their labours arrive? Why drop it and start something new? Leaders do it because they are constantly looking for the opportunity to push their personal boundaries, to try and to learn something new. This will entail more pain, since growth always involves pain. To those who want to coast it doesn’t appear to make sense to change just as you are doing so well, reaping the rewards of your efforts.

Leaders know the alternative is an inevitable decline and so are regularly reinventing themselves, their careers and their relationships, rising to new challenges and pushing through painful new phases of growth. The junction between the first and second is not easy or clean. There is always a period of confusion, where the first curve is being abandoned and the second one embraced. This is a time of overlap, or ambiguity and of confusion.

It is during this period the leader communicates clear goals and objectives for his people. They become aware of what is happening. Progress is reviewed based on fact. What happened, what were the results, what can we do differently the next time? People are encouraged to take responsibility. Because leaders engage regularly with their people they will know how to inspire them through this change and enable their talent potential for the new venture.

It is impossible to tell when exactly to jump off one curve and onto another. But the best advice is that it must always be assumed that when the first curve is nearing a peak, preparation for the new curve should be underway. This is easy for leaders because they are always seeking opportunities to try something new and prepare a second curve. It is far better to be early than waiting until it is too late and the decline and rot has already begun to devour the previous success. If you find yourself in decline it will drain you of energy and enthusiasm to make the change so easily and there is less chance of success.

Leaders will ride the first curve while seeking new opportunities to begin the second. Clinging to the first and trying to prolong it is a pointless waste of energy and generates the rear view mirror approach of “everything was so much better then”. Leaders will always be at the top of their game and will therefore know when to plan their exit.

Leaders in their passionate pursuit of excellence challenge the status quo and then seize opportunities previously camouflaged; doing so, they build sustainable momentum in the workplace. When a leader explores, they challenge everyone on the team to get out of their comfort zones and step up their games. When leaders are not exploring or have a rear view mirror approach, they send the wrong signal. 

The art of leadership is mastered and then maintained over time. It is the ability to serve and navigate the needs of other people. This requires inner calm and self-awareness. This allows them to be good listeners and to have the ability to quickly connect the patterns of conversation – personal interests, leadership style and business needs. Leadership is not all you; it’s all about awareness of self and others.


1 Handy, C The Empty Raincoat - Making Sense of the Future (1995) http://bit.ly/RvRicO

About the author

James Flanagan is an experienced practitioner in training and management development, change management and communications. He can be contacted at scaoimhin@yahoo.co.uk



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